The purpose of this assignment is to have students investigate and consciously examine:
The "Greatest Novels" list is not a canonical list of the greatest novels ever. It is a mirror that students hold up to themselves, a mirror that reveals who they are as readers.
Step 1: Review the handout "The Greatest Novels, Ever" and highlight the novels you have read.
After completing the highlighting, write a brief reflection essay on what the highlighting reveals. Are there areas with lots of highlighting and areas with very little/no highlighting? Is there an “empty” place that you’d like to be full of highlighting? Did you recognize many or some of the novels you have not read? Of the books you have read, how did you first hear about these novels? What made you want to read them?
Step 2: Add books to the list.
The list I have created is purposefully incomplete. Add 15-20 books (novels, novellas, or short story collections) to existing categories or create a new category and suggest 15-20 books for it.
After you have found 10-15 books, write a brief reflection essay upon how you found these books. What methods did you choose? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Is this your normal way of locating books to read? How did this process differ from the normal way you find books to read?
Step 3: Create your own “canon.”
Make a list of 25-30 novels, novellas, or short story collections (but not plays, epic poems, movies, or nonfiction), which you believe are the greatest works of prose fiction ever.
Afterward, write a brief reflection essay on the list you have created. Why did you choose the books you chose? What makes these books great? Are there any books on the list that you have not actually read? Are there any books on your list that you have not read and have no immediate plans to read? If so, why are these books on your list? Is it because they are “classics?” Do you feel obligated to read certain books, even if you aren’t excited about them? What makes you excited to read a particular new novel? What do you look forward to? What do you anticipate emotionally and stylistically that leads to your excitement?
Step 4: Choose one book.
From your list of 25-30 works of fiction, choose one to read this semester that you have read and admire deeply, a book you have re-read before, a book that made you want to be a writer, or a book that made you say, “I wish I had written this book.” Explain why you admire this book and what about it you want to copy/imitate.
They've only read YA novels and books assigned in school
Most of my students discovered, to their disappointment and shame, that they stopped reading for fun in high school and since then had only read books assigned for school. That meant they only highlighted YA novels and a dozen or so commonly assigned books.
They are not reading what they want to write
Because they had stopped reading for fun, they were not reading the kinds of novels they wanted to write. I rarely had students who wanted to write YA, yet young adult dominated their reading experience.
Their canon included books they had not read
For part 3, their "best books ever" lists were made up of a few books they had read for school, and the rest were books they had never read. Everyone did this. Everyone. This blew my mind. When asked about it, they said these were famous books, that they "had stood the test of time" and so must be great. But they also had no plans to read them! (I let them know that "standing the test of time" meant people like me had assigned them in school, probably because our teachers had assigned them in school.)
What this showed me was that they had not read enough to develop their own literary aesthetic. They didn't know what they liked. They hadn't formed their own ideas about what makes a great novel. They filled the gap in their own consciousness with conventional wisdom. I think the best possible outcome for this assignment is for a student to realize this, reject conventional wisdom, and set out to consciously discover their artistic values.
They had not read anything at all
Every semester I had at least one student who did not highlight a single book on the list. Somehow, more than one college junior had avoided reading anything at all, even for school. I wondered if they ever read.
After talking with them I found the answer was no, they did not read. Then why were they taking a creative writing class? I'm not sure they knew. All of them were men. Two were Iraq veterans with a strong interest in religion. I sensed they were men whose lives were in transition, who were confused, and perhaps they thought writing would help them sort some things out.
My worst experience with this assignment was with graduate students after I was invited to shared some of my lessons with a creative writing practicum class. I passed out copies of "The Greatest Novels, Ever" and had the grad students highlight in class for about ten minutes. Afterward we had a discussion about what the highlighting revealed and completed steps 2 and 3 as a group.
That was the plan, anyway. While they were highlighting they started making comments out loud about the list, which led to open conversations critical of the list, its contents, its organization, and its creator. Some seemed personally offended by the list. To my surprise, they treated the list as if it were a definitive statement of artistic merit, a full-throated manifesto that was "problematic" and whose creator was utterly wrong. In other words, rather than a mirror that revealed things about them, they thought it was a window into my literary tastes. And I was wrong.
I reiterated that the list was arbitrary in content and organization, designed to provoke introspection. I was not making a statement or trying to impose anything on anyone. They didn't buy it.
And they were resistant to introspection, even hostile to it.
So what happened? For someone who thinks of themselves as well-read, the highlighting exercise can induce insecurity. How can I be well-read if I haven't read all these books? In truth, no one has read them all. It's impossible. But grad students are already an insecure bunch. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and they mask their insecurity with false bravado.
This group was also unfamiliar with contemplative pedagogy. If I were to present to graduate students again, I would spend more time at the beginning talking about contemplative pedagogy, its methods, and goals before introducing the activity as an example of a self-reflection assignment.